Prius problems deepen woes for Toyota

WASHINGTON: Toyota's troubles multiplied Thursday as its flagship Prius hybrid became the latest model to be targeted in an expanding web of US investigations into safety at the Japanese auto giant.

Toyota officials in the United States would not confirm or deny an unsourced report in Japan's Nikkei business daily that it had decided to recall an estimated 270,000 Prius cars in Japan and the US to fix the brake problem.

But in Washington, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a formal probe into the Prius after 124 complaints from consumers on the 2010 model of the world's most popular hybrid.

The investigation would examine "allegations of momentary loss of braking capability while traveling over an uneven road surface, pothole or bump," said NHTSA, an agency of the US government's transportation department.

"Investigators have spoken with consumers and conducted pre-investigatory field work," the agency said, adding that four Prius owners had complained the braking issues had led to crashes.

Green flagship Prius a new headache for Toyota

Toyota said it would "cooperate fully with NHTSA?s investigation" and admitted to being aware of complaints "of inconsistent brake feel" on rough or slick road surfaces on the 2010 Prius.

In Tokyo, the company said it had redesigned the anti-lock braking system (ABS) for the latest version of the Prius, produced since last month, and would soon announce steps for those already on the road.

The Japanese automaker has been hit by a whirlwind of safety concerns around the globe and US authorities are scrambling to assure a concerned public and angry lawmakers who have begun their own probes into vehicle defects.

The admission of a brake design flaw with its star green car and the subsequent US probe are major new blows that could not have come at a worse time for the world's largest automaker.

Toyota recalls raise questions about computerized cars

Toyota was already under fire in the US for its handling of massive recalls affecting about eight million vehicles worldwide -- more than its entire 2009 global sales of 7.8 million vehicles -- due to accelerator trouble.

Separately Thursday, a US class-action lawsuit filed in Colorado against Toyota alleged the Japanese automaker hid problems that have led to the rash of recalls and seeking compensation for all residents who own affected cars.

Attorneys filed a suit alleging the company, "has known for several years about the unexpected acceleration problems that recently led Toyota to temporarily stop selling and recall many of its most popular models in the United States."

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said safety was his top priority in announcing the Prius probe and that his agency was still working on issues of "pedal entrapment and sticky accelerator pedals" on several other Toyota models.

LaHood has acknowledged that the first instances of Toyota's problems in the US dated back to a recall of floor mats in September 2007.

The agency revived the probe following the California crash of a Lexus sedan in August of last year that killed four people.

US lawmakers, meanwhile, called for answers on why Toyota's Tacoma trucks -- which have a different pedal assembly than the 5.3 million vehicles recalled -- were also experiencing problems with sudden, unintended acceleration.

Senator Jay Rockefeller said the Senate Commerce Committee he chairs would hold a hearing at an unspecified date into the Toyota safety debacle. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is already examining the issue.

Toyota's top US official, Yoshimi Inaba, is set to testify at congressional hearings next Wednesday as part of a wider probe by lawmakers.

The latest developments were particularly worrying for Toyota because the Prius has created a global buzz and been Japan's top-selling car since June -- ahead of its main rival, Honda's Insight.

Toyota had sold nearly 1.5 million Prius vehicles in 40 countries as of August 31 since the first version's launch in 1997, making it the world's most popular hybrid car.

One piece of good news eventually for Toyota was that it might not be the only major carmaker with problems as Ford Motor Company admitted a glitch affecting braking in some of its hybrid vehicles and offered a software fix.

The number two US automaker said it was offering the fix to owners of 2010-model Ford Fusion Hybrids and Mercury Milan Hybrids to update software of the regenerative brake system.

"We have received reports that some drivers have experienced a different brake feel when the hybrid's unique regenerative brakes switch to conventional hydraulic braking," Ford said.

"While the vehicles maintain full braking capability, customers may initially perceive the condition as loss of brakes."